RETIRED businessman Phang Tai Heng has been a volunteer in Jalan Besar for more than 50 years.
The 86-year-old, who spent many years as chairman of the Jalan Besar Community Club management committee and Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC), is probably Singapore's oldest and longest-serving grassroots leader.
His connection to the area began when at 19 he started working in an engineering workshop that his father owned.
"After all these years, I know both the people and place very well and have seen how the area has grown," said Mr Phang, who is patron of both the community club's management committee and the CCC.
His years of service were acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a Chinese New Year party for more than 4,000 community and grassroots leaders at the Istana earlier this month.
PM Lee gave him a special SG50 ez-link card with a handwritten "thank you" note on its red pocket- sized folder.
"May you always be blessed with health and happiness and thank you for 50 years of service to our nation," wrote PM Lee, a surprise guest at the party.
Another veteran grassroots leader, Mr Phua Him Ko, 74, of Kampong Glam CCC, received the same token of appreciation.
Mr Phang, who took over his father's engineering business, operated a foundry as well before moving into the real estate and cinema businesses in Queenstown. He was awarded the Public Service Star for social and community service in 1997.
Although he retired about five years ago, he is still very active in community work. A Justice of the Peace since 1994, Mr Phang has solemnised at least a hundred marriages a year for more than 20 years.
He lost his wife to liver cancer about 15 years ago, but has five grown-up children - two sons and three daughters - 11 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
He said he first got involved in the community in 1957, when former senior parliamentary secretary Chan Chee Seng was contesting the city council elections as the People's Action Party candidate in Jalan Besar.
"Mr Chan came to my engineering workshop in Kallang one day to borrow my car, a green Morris 8, to ferry voters to and from polling stations on polling day," he recalled.
After Mr Chan won the election and became the ward's legislative assemblyman, he got Mr Phang involved in setting up the community club and CCC in the early 1960s.
And after Mr Chan retired from politics and stepped down as MP for the ward in 1984, Mr Phang continued to serve his successor, Dr Lee Boon Yang, who was an MP there from 1984 to 2011.
Dr Lee was followed by Mr Edwin Tong, the third MP of Jalan Besar, now a division of Moulmein- Kallang GRC.
"All the MPs and grassroots advisers for the ward trusted me mainly for my years of experience, and I find it hard to leave because of the support I get from the residents too," said Mr Phang, who still drives to the community club whenever he is needed.
His greatest reward, he said, was seeing young people who had received financial help returning to serve as volunteers.
In the early days, he recalled, there were no government funds, so grassroots leaders and MPs often had to help the poor out of their own pockets.
"We also gave loans to tertiary students who could not afford to pay for their school fees."
Most grassroots leaders in the past, he noted, were older businessmen willing to spend both time and money on community work.
He is glad to know that today, many younger and better- educated ones, including university graduates, are coming forward.
"This is a good sign as it shows that some of our young people also see meaning in community work."
As for himself, he has no plans to stop.
"My work for the community has kept me happy and healthy and I will continue as long as I am able to."
This article was first published on March 16, 2015.
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